Dismantling Whiteness In Academia

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Salvador Vidal-Ortiz is associate professor of sociology at American University. He recently published a co-edited volume, Queer Brown Voices: Personal Narratives of Latina/o LGBT Activism, with University of Texas Press, and has a forthcoming co-authored book, Race and Sexuality, with Polity Press.

Dismantling Whiteness In Academe

Academics, primarily those of color, are fighting for a voice to disrupt the neoliberal (some would say white supremacist) logics now embedded in false practices of choice and equality in education today. Academic circles operate as inhospitable sites to faculty of color, as higher education is built on the exclusionary processes of symbolic and tokenistic inclusion. The ways in which those historical exclusionary processes impact nonwhite faculty involve those faculty having to constantly negotiate or say no to extra work — work that oftentimes involves managing diversity for whiteness.

In this essay, I discuss some of the characteristics of whiteness as embedded in multiple university sites and experienced by many of my colleagues. I also begin to point toward a project of dismantling whiteness in order to make room for an academic transformative engagement.

Scholars’ vocal actions against “light” multiculturalism, reactions to shallow accusations of “reverse racism” and active resistance to neoliberal diversity often encounter a challenge. That challenge is, namely, that whiteness and a strong racial inclusion and justice project cannot occupy the same space. By whiteness — as an institution, as discourse and as the invisible norm — I am referring to the entitlements provided to most professors by virtue of a white academic institution that privileges cultural norms of formal communication, professionalism and appropriateness. A rule of sameness often applies here: of sameness in hiring practices, in trusting others like them, in the advancement of knowledge and in simple networking endeavors that invoke “fairness and equal opportunity” through the vaguest language of multiculturalism (or the 21st-century upgrade: “diversity and inclusion”).

Those institutions may, conversely, tag nonwhite faculty members as unfitting, creating the conditions that make them feel out of place. Indeed, when an institution is not made for you, you are out of place and, indeed, conditionally accepted. When faculty of color speak up, we are often silenced — and put in “our place.” Over all, the failed project of watered-down academic diversity is a reminder of how whiteness is structured — and structuring our interactions in academe.

It bears repeating that the dismantling of whiteness (as structure) is different from white (as race). When we talk about race in the classroom, I always make sure to distinguish between a race, a group of people, and the system that races encode. Here, I talk about whiteness as a discourse that enables a set of practices, which activates, with its own set of codes, certain responses and actions. But I am not speaking of white people — whether administrators, colleagues, students — or even whiteness as a race.

Academe is poised to transform the bias of traditional and canonical curriculum. Yet while the philosophy and policies at many universities have become more robust, inclusive and oh so diverse, in actuality, the leadership of many of those institutions has continued to reinforce whiteness as a rule. Universities may have incompetent administrators in departmental units, but the code of white networks makes any honest actions or comments about the challenges those people create difficult at best. Thus, whiteness remains pretty invisible to the very powers that be and that operate in and through it, maintaining a ruling on norms that directly impact faculty of color in recruitment, retention and promotion.

Networks among the “we” that hire base their decisions on a white collective imaginary of who produces important work (read: gets the right grants), who seems to work hard, who meets the standards — creating self-fulfilling situations that repeat, and thus reify, whiteness (and that obscure when folks of color do, indeed, produce the work). Universities that are in constant tribulation for their lack of diversity ironically use “target of opportunity” hires, but white people get tenure-track positions in (at best) dubious processes. We also see white folks who leave and come back to institutions as they please, without formal hiring processes, who may be claimed as target recruitments. Nowadays, the process of tenure has become a bargaining of sorts — with (often) white folks holding other offers in hand, ready to quit and move on.

Indeed, whiteness talks — it always has, and it does so in silence, as the norm, as whiteness often most successfully reproduces itself. And yet if one notes how that work gets done, those mentioning it become the problem. In neoliberal talk, some of us don’t do the work that matters, or that gets us (and the university) funded, or that is published in presses and journals that are ranked, so we best stay in our place. I’ve heard so many of such versions from colleagues across the country, countless times. This is not new.

I am a Latino queer tenured sociologist at, like most scholars, a white institution, or a majority white institution. But here I use “majority” in the sociological sense. I am referring to the actions that make it a majority white institution irrespective of the numbers. The terms “majority” and “minority” are not literal; rather, these terms are about power, control of institutions and resources, and a sense of ownership and belonging. When academic settings operate in and through whiteness, the process constructs ethnoracial groups as minorities, irrespective of the numbers. Faculty, staff and students are often engaged in sometimes innocent, often implicit, or at times explicit engagements with a code of whiteness that reproduces a specific social order that sets exclusionary traps for most people who feel ill placed (sometimes including women, often gender and sexual minorities, and, generally, people of color).

At many universities in the United States, diversity bypasses race for country of origin, for gender, for sexuality, for queer identity and experience, for working-class status (in white students) and for disability. To bypass here is not just to ignore but also to avoid. Yet this avoidance is also a significant passing through, in that it depends on a loose notion of how to include “the other” in academe, while it co-opts any efforts to confront the structural systems of racism embedded in the culture of universities.

Sites that bypass racial-minority faculty hiring often simultaneously master showcasing how “diverse” they may be — with white women constituting the majority of the ranks, as well as gays and lesbians. (Some universities go as far as to argue that conservatives, Republicans and religious applicants who hold sexist, racist and homophobic beliefs are minoritized.) This bypassing of diversity is in actuality an erasure of minorities — and of Blackness in particular — that gets constituted into benign acts of inclusion. These acts serve the dual purpose of salvaging the university’s attempts and efforts to diversify, while at the same time justifying why the focus is not on ethnoracial minorities. Students at many campuses have noticed this and begun to demand practices that move beyond tokenism. Faculty and staff members must follow suit.

It is taxing to call out the whiteness of those so comfortably supported by the web underneath that discourse, and it sure has repercussions — any challenge to systematic control and power does. Sometimes, faculty of color do not find the room to challenge the systems in place; sometimes, we do not even have the energy to communicate this effectively, given our frustration at academe’s inability to articulate itself outside of neoliberal markers.

To dismantle whiteness is to enunciate its characteristics, denounce how it works (when it does and through whom), and make evident the patterns that may be obvious to some people (and how and why others are oblivious to it). Dismantling whiteness in academe is about giving up power and privilege, yes. It is also about recognizing how inherently hostile the university spaces and environment are for faculty, staff and students of color. It requires a rage about diversity and that we move into a sociohistorical and cultural analysis of academe as a racist institution.

Latinxs In Academe: Rage About “Diversity Work”

Note: this was published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Salvador Vidal-Ortiz is associate professor of sociology at American University. He recently published a co-edited volume, Queer Brown Voices: Personal Narratives of Latina/o LGBT Activism, with University of Texas Press, and has a forthcoming co-authored book, Race and Sexuality, with Polity Press.

Latinx students’ higher enrollment in colleges and universities in the United States should produce hope. But the attrition rate is higher for Latinx students than for their peers from other racial and ethnic groups. That lower rate of undergraduate completion is reflected at the graduate level as well: a recent report shows that less than 1 percent of Latinxs hold Ph.D.s — far fewer than Asians, whites and African-Americans. And while academic institutions may be recruiting more Latinx students, they often aren’t increasing their Latinx faculty hires.

People in higher education talk a lot about diversity, but the aforementioned disparities should raise concern as to whether institutions are all talk when it comes to inclusion. The gap between what is said and done sustains what Sara Ahmed has called diversity work, a project that often supports the public relations goals of colleges and universities at the expense of Latinxs and other ethnoracial minority groups.

Early on in any given fall semester, I attend a reception for Latina/o students — a common occurrence these days, as growing numbers of Latinx students attend private institutions like my own. According to colleagues I have consulted, there seems to be a pattern across our institutions: the majority of the Latinx faculty members are largely “term” or visiting faculty — concepts used to describe faculty employed on yearly contracts. In contrast, the number of Latinx scholars who are tenure-track faculty is relatively small at these colleges. It seems that our institutions typically have one or two full professors who are of Latin American (not U.S. Latinx) descent and a handful of Latinx tenured associate professors (myself included).

It is with those patterns in mind that I begin to notice my rage at the unfortunate set of events — the unintended setup, I prefer to think — unfolding in front of me. Such patterns do not merely become evident with statistics and numbers; they are part and parcel of many Latinx students’ everyday lived realities in academe.

Mine is a rage against “diversity work.”

“Diversity” has become a shorthand for the insertion of minority students into predominantly white academic spaces, while at the same time leaving untouched the historical enforcement of exclusion inherent from the inception of these institutions. Often times, to “diversify” means to change brochures, update website pictures, hire key administrators who represent the face of any given historically excluded group. Yet colleges and universities still prioritize enrollments and registration over spending time and resources to support the retention of students.

Let’s not kid ourselves — the stakes are partially monetary. In the view of corporate-minded academic administrators, the more diversity there is, the more “experience” students gain. That, in coded language, means more diversity allows U.S.-born, non-Hispanic white students to consume otherness and develop the appropriate skills at managing difference (and a portrayal of their “tolerance” for difference) for when they work with — not in — a “diverse” environment. This translates in a direct gain — monetary and otherwise — for a white student body that eventually becomes part of the work force. Their coded experience with “diversity” allows for them to “manage” diversity without having to address inequality. It also means disciplining students of color to assimilate to that diversity project — preparing them to abide by these unequal work-force standards, to fit within that system.

This superficial diversity work is not only a challenge for private colleges and universities. Some public institutions I’ve recently visited have become Hispanic-serving institutions — a designation that recognizes the significant number of Latina/o and Hispanic students enrolled. It also, ironically, makes those institutions less accountable to diversity, as they are academic models by the act of surpassing “quota” numbers, but they continue to instill a consumption of difference (or the showcasing of their nonwhite students for the benefit of the institution without addressing inherent inequalities). At those institutions, the experiences I hear about from Latinx students are similar: no matter how many brown students I see, the professoriate is white and does not get our concerns, cannot think with a truly intersectional lens, and is unable to rescind some of the hegemonic views that inspire the “canon” in any given field.

I experience a personal rage about some of these things and how they impact faculty members, students and academe in general. That is not the rage of the “angry Latino man” — a common stereotype even in academic circles. Rather, it is my own rewriting of it. Like the discourse that presupposes Latinas and Latinos are homogeneous, rage is but an individual aspect of Latina/o racializing in the United States and in academe in particular.

Latinx professors are expected to know everything about diversity. Even if you work on the sciences in a lab, you should be able to, at the drop of the request, pull out a set of handouts and a 60- to 90-minute session on “my culture has these distinctive features” or “diversity is good because of …” Some of us decided to study topics of race, gender, class and sexuality in order to own and redefine the tenets of the discourse we were simply invited to join. We have been pushed to speak for a group of people, and our behavior, emotions and expressions of support for X or Y administrative task are read through a lens of representation not expected of white men or women.

This rage is not violent — it is affirmative. I feel rage for Latinx students. Many of them come from community colleges and are hungry to discuss their take on being a Latinx or multiracial student on the campus. Yet they don’t have the resources to adjust (read: assimilate) to such a new and unwelcoming environment. In privileging their current diversity project over the needs of Latinx students, colleges and universities constantly lump those U.S. students together with Latin American ones, even though their socioeconomic backgrounds and linguistic practices are significantly different.

I sometimes rage at administrative staff members whose interests may be more in line with the institution’s diversity project and who could care less for students’ challenges and concerns — or worse, who may dismiss those challenges or channel them to faculty of color. I feel rage with the junior faculty members whose research and teaching must excel, all while having to take under their wing dozens of Latinx students who continually demand they listen to stories about experiences of institutional violence — you know, those inherent in colleges and universities that were not made, and are unwilling to be transformed, with Latinx students in mind. I have to let the rage sink in.

Rage is that constant exasperation with the contemporary hypocrisy that aims to be “inclusive.” It may give visual sense to the invisibility of white dominance in the curriculum, or solidify the unnoticed classed markers in academic expectations and “professional” behavior, or perhaps reclaim diversity in ways that are less about inclusion and more about institutional transformation. Rage is also a tool to turn the presupposed norms upside down — that is, the orderly ways in which both women and men articulate whiteness in academe — and the responses to the inertia we sometimes see.

Transforming this rage means teaching about race at historically white colleges and universities, interrogating existing diversity discourses, revisiting curriculum so that whiteness is not left invisible, or involving non-Latinx faculty members (or other faculty of color) in the mentoring of nonwhite students. Collaborating on making our rage productive means multiple things at once.

This rage does not belong to Latinxs alone. It is an important source of action, of challenging meaningless “diversity work.” We should not engage it alone. Collaborative rage on diversity might end up producing more transformative changes — real diversity — or something new altogether.

On Being Latina/o In Academia

salvadorNote: this blog was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Salvador Vidal-Ortiz is an associate professor in the sociology department at American University. He also teaches in the women’s, gender and sexuality studies program. He recently published a co-edited volume, Queer Brown Voices: Personal Narratives of Latina/o LGBT Activism, with University of Texas Press.

——

Although I may be one of the first Latina/o faculty members to contribute to “Conditionally Accepted,” I want to start by stating the obvious: I am not speaking for all Latinas/os in academe. As a light-skinned, nonheterosexual Puerto Rican man, I have a specific social location that not even other Puerto Ricans or other queer Latina/o academics will share. That includes, as a Puerto Rican, having been born with U.S. citizenship, and coming from one of the only countries that has not achieved independence from its colonizers. And as a nonheterosexual faculty member, it includes the perks of being a multiply minoritized scholar, to use José Muñoz’s Disidentifications phrase.

Yet while I am only writing from my own experience, I have met and interacted with countless other nonwhite faculty members experiencing a range of issues like those I have faced. In this essay, I write from the self in ways that demonstrate a singular-social voice in order to situate the self in the social. Work on the humanities, communications and increasingly, the social sciences is doing this nowadays — my own work on autoethnography attests to that.

For me, the writing from the self does not divorce from social categories or political ones inside and outside of academe. As a Latino, it is crucial for me to discuss that in 2016, after 15 years of the so-called threat of Latinas/os numerically surpassing African-Americans, Latinas/os are read in a multiplicity of ways: adhering to their own communities (whereas by nationality, region and/or as Latinas/os) while being charged with an assimilationist racial discourse in a (still) polarized black-white racial landscape. Latinas/os are racialized — a practice that occurs irrespective of skin color or census-based ethno-racial categories. We are racialized in ways that mark us as people of color. But we are placed between the black and white racial binary, often forced to operate with those compass-like categories, pointing to ways of how to talk about race but always within the binary. All the while, our experience is trivialized as ethnic, not racial.

As a queer Latino faculty member, I’m sometimes asked by colleagues at many colleges and universities (including my home institution, American University) to address questions of gender and sexuality in diversity sessions, classrooms and other academic settings. But when such conversations turn to race and racial inequality, or when I queer a plain conversation intended for the sake of discussing only gender and sexuality by introducing racialized content, questions of power and issues of racism, the ambience is like a first date gone awfully wrong. However, that is how one makes waves happen.

As noted before, the differences between Latinas/os are immense. Yet it is often assumed inside and outside academe that we speak in a particular way. (Many of us often hear the so very offensive “Gosh, your English is so good!”) Or that we think in a particular way about social and economic issues, or that we are significantly more Catholic (or religious, for that matter). Even in academic settings, it is often assumed that we cannot challenge machismo practices (which, oddly enough, are only attributed to Latino culture!). Being “conditionally accepted” means managing a constant negotiation of these assumptions — and tapping into self-control and our artful skills to challenge the tenets of such assumptions, be it about dancing, food, religion, family ties, immigration — you name it.

For instance, I have had my share of experiences with white feminist scholars who speak to me in Spanish. I let out a few seconds of generous doubt about what that means, only to respond in English. I assume this is read as a warning, a symbolic one, before calling them out verbally the second (or third) time around. When I hear a mention of machismo, I tend to sigh and redirect to issues of heterosexism. When I hear that Latinos have a harder time coming out, I loop back to Allan Bérubé, John D’Emilio, and Gayle Rubin, all gay and lesbian historians and anthropologists, to explain that most urban gay cities were formed by white gay men who left their families and formed new communities — for it is quite easy to come out a thousand miles away from family and when you are self-sufficient, but not when you live in the same household.

I am casually touched in a hallway or at my office in ways that seem to read acceptance into some sort of a club (as a light-skinned Latino), in contrast to how my black colleagues are often not touched, nor their personal space invaded. I am asked to represent my ethno-racial group when discussing race, just like a student is tokenized by being brought into a committee to speak for their group. Indeed, paternalism comes in all colors. I turn around to challenge this, and then I lose — too angry to be collegial, too volatile to collaborate with. But the energy and patience it takes to not talk back is precious, and the point there is that it takes a hold of one.

Of course, my experiences as a faculty member at AU have somewhat influenced my writing. I have had my share of great department chairs and students, as well as wonderful relationships with its many administrators in more than a decade at the university — and a lot of challenges at many of those levels as well.

Yet my writing comes, as I noted before, from many other places, experiences and tales told to me by colleagues at public and private institutions. The point is really not about a faculty member at a single institution but rather about the echo produced once a story is told and how it resonates with others in academe. In that, it is not just my story. It is also not an ethnography of the institution where I have worked for over a decade nor an autoethnography of myself in a place. It is constitutive of larger experiences of managing one’s own set of lived realities as “diversity workers” by virtue of being on those spaces, as Sara Ahmed so eloquently notes in her 2012 book, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life.

The point of this first post is that, while I am writing solo, I am not alone, but I am also not representing all Puerto Ricans, all queer people or all Latinas/os. That brings a lot of excitement to the writing, and I look forward to hearing, and reading, the echo of many other voices for which these stories resonate — Latina/o and non-Latina/o alike.